What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology is the manipulation of matter at a size so small that it is measured in Nanometres,(one billionth of a metre) the scale of atoms and molecules. It’s difficult to grasp quite how small the nanoscale is. To give some reference points: one nanometre (nm) is one millionth of a millimetre, a human hair is 80,000nm across, a red blood cell is 5,000nm in diameter, a DNA molecule is 2.5nm wide and it takes 10 hydrogen atoms arranged side by side to measure 1nm wide.
Everything is the same
When viewed at the nanoscale the whole world starts to look the same, everything both living and non-living on this planet is made up of atoms and molecules, and at the nanoscale that’s all you see.
Things behave differently
Below about 50nm the rules that govern the behaviour of the elements of our known world start to give way to the rules of quantum mechanics, and everything changes. To take the example of gold, we are all familiar with gold at the macro scale, for instance, a normal gold ring is a familiar shiny orangey/yellow colour. The same is true of a particle of gold 100nm wide, but, a particle of gold 30nm across is bright red, slightly bigger than that it is purple and going smaller still it’s brownish in colour. It’s not just colour that changes at the nanoscale -- other properties including strength, reactivity, conductivity, electrical properties also change as size and shape change.
Why is the nanoscale interesting to corporations?
For corporations nanotechnology opens up a whole new world of possible applications and product opportunities across all sectors of the economy: smaller and faster computers; drugs that permeate the body more effectively and can target specific cells; catalysts (used to speed up chemical reactions, including oil-refining processes) can be made more reactive; sensors can monitor everything with much greater precision; materials can be stronger, lighter and 'smarter'. Given the diverse range of applications to which nanotechnology can be put it is perhaps more accurate to talk of nanotechnologies.
What are the problems?
Toxicity: Corporations have rushed into commercialising the first generation of nanotechnology based products (nanoparticles) before adequate safety testing procedures, let alone regulations, are in place to deal with them. Given that nanoparticle products, including cosmetics and wound dressings, are already on the market and food and environmental remediation applications are not far off this should be ringing alarm bells.
There is a growing body of scientific opinion which claims that a unique set of problems are associated with the toxicity of manufactured nanoparticles. The concern is two fold: Firstly that by being reduced to the nanoscale materials become more reactive and therefore potentially more toxic. Secondly, that our bodies have not evolved to recognise nanoparticles. Before their deliberate manufacture as nano-particles relatively few particles of this size existed in the world. As a result our bodies protective filters, ranging from the skin to the lining of the lungs to the blood/brain barrier, do not filter out nano foreign bodies -- with potentially dangerous effects.
"There is evidence that UFPs [Ultra Fine Particles or nano particles] can gain entry to the body by a number of routes, including inhalation, ingestion and across the skin. There is considerable evidence that UFPs are toxic and therefore potentially hazardous. The basis of this toxicity is not fully established but a prime candidate for consideration is the increased reactivity associated with very small size." -Dr Vyvyan Howard, Toxicologist
Despite nano particle based products already being on the market there are very few published studies on the toxicology of nanoparticles. Those studies that have happened have shown problems, for example fish exposed to carbon nanoparticles quickly developed brain damage. Even the traditionally pro-technology Royal Society has urged caution about the use of nanoparticles and has stressed the need for regulation to be put in place.
We are only dealing with the first generation of relatively simple nanotechnology based products and there are already safety issues. As the scope of commercial nanotechnology increases we can expect further safety problems to arise. For example what will the biosafety implications of Nano-biotechnology be?
Nano encapsulation: food, pharmaceutical and chemical companies, are all working on nano sized capsules containing flavourings, drugs, pesticides designed to break open and release their contents only under certain conditions.
Nano devices: shrinking the size of electronic components and devices to the nanoscale. One example is nano sensors, already US defense agencies as well as corporations (including Intel) are using advances in nanotechnology to develop ever smaller wireless sensors capable of monitoring everything from farms to threats to ‘homeland security’.
Nano biotech: An area of expanding research is nanobiotechnology, the nanoscale mixing of biological and non-biological material: Incorporating non-living nano-materials into living organisms; Creating new synthetic materials incorporating biological materials; Harnessing natures ability to ‘self assemble’ to build complex structures from the level of atoms up; Treating DNA as a molecule and atomically engineering life atom by atom.
What products are already on the market?
Pilkington: ‘Activ’ self cleaning glass
transparent sunblocks often use nanoparticles -- including some products sold by The Body Shop and Green People.
Smith&Nephew: ‘Anticoat’ wound dressings
Oxonica/Cerulean International: ‘Environex’ fuel additive (in the process of being rolled out to the entire Stagecoach UK bus fleet)
L’Oreal: ‘Plenitude Revitalift’ anti-wrinkle cream
Kodak: ‘ColorLast’ inkjet printer paper
Stain resistant fabric used on some clothing lines by Levis, Regatta, Marks and Spencer
Wrinkle resistant fabric used on some clothing lines by, GAP, Lee, Levis and Kathmandu
And what’s coming?
NEC laptops powered by nano tube fuel cell batteries. Flat screen displays using carbon nanotubes.
Biotech broke the species barrier
Nanotech breaks the life/non-life barrier
Lots of interest has been generated by the concept of technological convergence -- the idea that nanotechnology will enable the eventual merger of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive neuroscience. Known by several names including NBIC (Nano Bio Info Cogno) and BANG (Bits Atoms Neurons Genes) convergence reaches into a brave new world where human enhancement, machine/mind interfaces become achievable goals. Although it sounds like the stuff of a bad sci-fi novel, nano-enabled convergence is likely to become science fact as it is attracting interest from major corporations and US defence agencies.
What's already happening?
Most commercial nanotechnology involves nanoparticles -- molecules with novel properties due to altering chemical reactions at the nanoscale. These are currently in products ranging from paints to cosmetics to tennis rackets to clothing to glass to computers. An example of a new particle is titanium dioxide. At the conventional scale a particle of titanium dioxide is white, good at reflecting UV light, widely used in sunblock. If manipulated to form particles only 20 nm wide the properties of titanium dioxide change -- it keeps its UV light scattering properties, but turns transparent and provides the basis for making see through sunblock. Other nano particles include new forms of carbon; carbon naturally occurs as either diamond or graphite. Nanoscale manipulations have produced new forms of carbon such as ‘Bucky Balls’ and ‘Nano Tubes’, with radically changed electrical and strength properties and a huge number of commercial applications.
Colonisation of the Nano scale
Just as 18th century explorers hoisted the flag of their home country to lay claim to their new found colonies, so too corporations have used corporate logos to lay claim to their stake in the new world of the nanoscale. In 1989 scientists working for IBM announced to the world their ability to manipulate matter atom by atom by using a scanning tunneling microscope (IBM's own patented technology) to rearrange 35 xenon atoms to spell out the letters I-B-M on the surface of a nickel crystal.
As nanomaterials become widely used there is the potential for major traded commodities, from iron and copper to rubber and cotton, to be replaced by nano equivalents. For example, the use of carbon nanotubes in the electronics industry looks set to make a sizeable dent in the copper extraction industry. The harshest impacts of these changes will be felt not by large corporations dealing in copper (who will simply relocate or diversify) but by local communities who depend on the copper mining industry.
Changing the size and shape of corporations
Just as the biotechnology revolution resulted in the lifesciences company (in which chemical, pharmaceutical, seed and materials interests were merged together) nanotechnology is likely to result in companies with different areas of operation working together, merging or buying each other due to their interest in the nano scale. For example, Bridgestone is finding that its nano applications, initially developed for tyres, are equally useful in making flat screens. Given the diverse range of companies embraced by a nano-enabled technological convergence what are the corporate mergers of the future going to look like? How powerful will those companies be?
Which companies are involved in nanotech?
Big Companies Virtually all of the Fortune Global 500 companies are investing in nanotechnology research. Unlike with biotech, big companies have been involved with nanotech from the start. They are both developing nanotechnologies for their own products and are using technologies developed by each other.
Major corporate nano developers/users include
Computers/Electronics: IBM, NEC, Fujitsu, Hitachi, Philips, Hewlett Packard, Samsung, Motorola, Mitsubishi, General Electric, Microsoft
Food: Kraft, Unilever, Nestle, Heinz, Sara Lee
Drugs/Healthcare: Glaxo, Smith and Nephew, Merck,
Oil: BP, Exxon, Chevron/Texaco, Shell, Haliburton,
Clothing: Burlington, Nike, Gap,
Defence/Aerospace: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Qinetiq,
Chemicals: Dupont, Degussa, Dow, Henkel,
Agricuture: Syngenta, Monsanto
Cars/Automotive: BMW, Renault, General Motors, Ford, Caterpillar,
Small Companies: Nanotech has also spawned hundreds of small nano specialist companies. These are often spinout companies commercialising the results of university research. Small nano-companies include
Nanosys, Nanophase, C60, Altair, Nanomix, Veeco, Flamel, Nanogate, Arryx, Nanoproducts. UK based companies include Oxonica, Thomas Swan & Co and Skyepharma.
New enclosures/new monopolies
Just as biotechnology’s ability to manipulate genes went hand in hand with the patenting of life, so too nanotechnology’s ability to manipulate molecules has led to the patenting of matter. Over 800 nano-related patents were granted in 2003, and the numbers are increasing year on year. Carbon nanotubes have a wide range of uses, and look set to become crucial to several industries. However, two corporations, NEC and IBM, hold the basic patents on carbon nanotubes.
The Big Down and The Little Big Down by the ETC Group available online at
May 2003 edition of the Ecologist Nanotechnology Special Report
Down On The Farm by the ETC Group available online at www.etcgroup.org